Life is cheap in the England of Henry VIII—there is widespread pestilence, there is religion-fueled mayhem, there is the unpleasant matter of Anne Boleyn, executed at the Tower in 1536—but even in that death-saturated land, it’s not every day that someone lops off the head of an emissary from the king. Nonetheless, at the Monastery of St. Donatas the Ascendant of Scarnsea, in the year 1537, a royal commissioner named Robin Singleton has found himself on the wrong side of a sword blade. Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s imperiously competent and much-feared vicar general, had dispatched Singleton to Scarnsea to negotiate terms of surrender with Abbot Fabian, the leader of the monastery. That move was part of Cromwell’s grand scheme to dismantle the country’s great religious establishments; his aim, in undertaking this “dissolution,” was both to further the cause of anti-papist Reform and to claim the wealth of the monasteries for the crown and its allies. Did one of the monks at St. Donatus decide to strike a personal blow for Counter-Reformation by murdering Singleton? To find out, Cromwell calls upon the investigative talents of Matthew Shardlake, a prosperous London lawyer and a loyal Reform man, who here appears in the first book of a series that follows his journey through the treacherous world where Tudor politics and sordid crime intermingle. Shardlake also happens to be a hunchback, and that condition arguably gives him a distinct angle of view on the rampant cruelty and suffering of his time.
Dissolution owes more than a little to the model of The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco. Like that best-selling tome, which opened the way for countless medieval mysteries that have followed, Sansom’s novel offers a minutely observed look inside a cloistered realm that typifies its era in many respects but also stands apart as a world unto itself. In each case, the rivalries and resentments that inevitably arise within an (almost) all-male population—a population marked by an imperfect commitment to celibacy and a sometimes warped commitment to the Christian faith—serve up lots of raw material for intrigue, secrecy, and misunderstanding. Shardlake and his protégé, Mark Poer, also resemble Eco’s heroes, John of Baskerville and Adso of Melk, in seeming just modern enough to bridge the gap between the mind of the Middle Ages and the sensibility of readers today. Sansom even includes a throwaway reference to one of the main plot points in Eco’s opus. (Brother Gabriel, the monk in charge of the library at St. Donatus, takes a book from the library’s collection and says to Shardlake: “Reputedly a copy of Aristotle’s lost work On Comedy. A fake, of course, thirteenth-century Italian, but beautiful nonetheless.”)
But Sansom‘s work is a superbly crafted whodunit with special qualities of its own. In a departure from the standard pattern, Shardlake rather that Poer narrates these proceedings, and he comes across less as a “great detective” than as a Watson-like figure: His voice, like his personality, is smart and stolid, yet oddly ingenuous. His response to the events that he witnesses is earnest and occasionally naïve—an attitude that plays an integral part in the story that Sansom aims to tell. Shardlake isn’t just a creature of his time; he’s a man formed by his time. Unlike many period mysteries, this one doesn’t treat the past as a static backdrop. Instead, readers gain a visceral sense that the English Reformation was a fluid process whose ultimate meaning and impact were far from certain. For Shardlake, a deepening of insight into that historical moment comes in tandem with an epiphany that lets him solve the murder puzzle. “This new world was no Christian commonwealth; it never would be,” he notes.
It was in truth no better than the old, no less ruled by powers and vanity. … And then I realized that blinkered thinking of another sort had blinded me to the truth of what happened at Scarnsea. I had bound myself to a web of assumptions about how the world worked, but remove one of those and it was as though a mirror of clear glass were substituted for a distorting one. My jaw dropped open. I realized who had killed Singleton and why and, that step taken, all fell into place.